Saturday, 31 January 2015

On Pilgrims and Aliens

I wrote a bit before about Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking, arguing that in rejecting scholarship it rejects community. After I finished the book, I had quite a few more complaints about it, some of which I addressed in this post I wrote for one of my tumblrs. Here's an excerpt:
As previously discussed, H. P. Lovecraft saw the world as radically Other, and he reacted with horror; he also saw non-white people and uneducated people as radically Other, and he reacted to them with horror. His cosmicism—the view that we are insignificant in the strange Otherness of the world—is inseparable from his racism. Northrop Frye, whose high view of literature and society comes from a deep fear of the natural world and its apparent indifference to us, had little attention for non-Western literature; I suspect that he suffers from the same sense of the Other, but he reacts by ignoring or delegitimizing, rather than despising, those people whose experiences are too different than his own. In rejecting the Other, both reject people. I wonder—but no more than wonder—whether Gros suffers a fate much like this; he rejects the Other, but misidentifies the natural world as his, owned by the mere fact that he walks into the forest, strains against the wind, drinks from a stream with his hands; in his book he frequently writes that the one who walks owns all that he sees. When Gros does recognize the Other in people he doesn’t quite understand, he rejects them, dismisses them, pities them, at times despises them. And in so doing these men make themselves more alone than they could otherwise be: if they are alienated from society, they seem to alienate themselves.
You'll see that I've written about Lovecraft and Frye over there already. I guess I've started blogging a little bit on my tumblr; I changed the name recently, and discussed why I changed the name, and that become a thing. I've been thinking about how Otherness influences my thinking and engagement with the world--yes, yes, Christian has attached himself to yet another construct--and since I needed to point that out to explain why I was doing what I was doing, that's become a theme over there.

As a bonus, I'll give you an excerpt from an article that I read yesterday, which I thought was related. It's from Hiromi Goto's "A Bending Light: Thoughts of Story, Diversity, and Social Responsibility," in the Winter 2014 issue of Ricepaper, which is itself an excerpt from her Guest of Honour Speech at the WisCon28 Conference. The piece convinced me to go ahead and publish the tumblr post. Here's the excerpt:

When writers try to imagine different ways of engaging, humans to other humans, humans with aliens, humans with animals, all these different relationships, we can make possible new kinds of engagements. To bring stories alive in this way is to try to make change in the workings and fabric of our world. If something is not of this world already, it first needs to be imagined. After it is imagined, it needs to be shaped by the parameters of language. And in writing, in the utterance, the story can begin its life. It can become.
You can read the rest at Goto's blog.


Also: I've been reading from Gordon Marino's Basic Writings of Existentialism, which contain a number of excerpts I haven't read before, or associated with existentialism, or even heard of; so far I've read the excerpts from Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling and The Sickness Unto Death, and Friedrich Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals. Nietzsche is more persuasive than I remembered, until he pulls outside terrible bit of psychology or really bad biology; there are parts I pretty much whole-heartedly agree with, and then other parts that seem plausible enough but definitely subject to empirical falsification, and others that are just nonsense. I appreciated what I read of The Sickness Unto Death, though it took me a long time to figure out how to read it; reading Fear and Trembling convinced me that I'm less intelligent and less informed than I thought, because I understood maybe half of it. I guess I'm a philosophical baby.

Sunday, 25 January 2015

Fixing Arthas and Narrative Time-Travel

[Edit 25 Jan 2015: I was meaner than I ought to have been in this review. Arthas is not good by the standards of novels, generally; it is possibly quite good at what it is supposed to be and do, that is, produce a fictionalization of the games on which it's based, maintaining much of the narrative tenor of those games, for an audience which cares about very different things than the standards of good novels, or good genre fiction. I guess I can't judge either Golden for attempting to make such an object or the book's target audience for caring about the things they care about. That said, my specific critiques still hold: Golden doesn't trust her audience, and that mars the book.]

Image source: Connor on Flickr. This image depicts a sign reading "To Time Bridge."

In November my brother showed me a book that a friend had lent to him: Arthas: Rise of the Lich King, by Christie Golden. In case you don’t know, Arthas is one of many novelizations based on the Warcraft franchise; it follows one of the games’ major protagonist/villains from his childhood to his ascendance to the Frozen Throne, an emblem of terrible and evil power. In many ways it is a typical tragedy, with a hero who becomes a villain, feeling compelled toward a fate which he could have avoided at any time. It depicts the events in the game and fleshes out what happened off-camera and how the characters came to be who they are. It’s also awful.

To be fair, I don’t think it’s supposed to be a good novel. It is not even a novel so much as it is a novelization; it is a supplement to the games. The book is written, I think, for people unused to reading novels: the prose is simple and the characterization simpler. Golden does have a few clever tricks up her sleeve. For instance, she sets up echoes throughout the novel, so that certain episodes or phrases in the first quarter of the novel allude to events later in Arthas’s life—and therefore events later in the novel—that players will remember from the games. He is knighted by a man he will later kill; a horse he later resurrects from the dead is born and dies; he meets Jaina and then they part, as you know from the games that they’ll reunite and then be estranged for good. You can see the foundation for the familiar story unfold before you, and then that story unfolds before you. It’s a nice touch. But it doesn’t make up for the rest of it.

The story is obvious, clichéd, overdramatic, frenetic, and disorganized. (This is not entirely Golden’s fault, since this is also true of the games.) It has not so much atmosphere or texture as it has references; mentioning items you can find in World of Warcraft does not make Azeroth seem real. The great blocks of exposition are tough to read. But the worst mistake is that Golden doesn’t trust the reader. Whenever two characters have some history with one another that impacts their current interaction—for instance, Kael and Arthas were romantic rivals over Jaina before becoming political enemies as well—either the narrator or the characters themselves summarize that history. Golden does not trust that the reader will be able to remember an event that happened a few short chapters ago; or, perhaps, she does not trust that reader can connect that event with the character’s current motives and emotions. She digs out all of the subtext and just makes it text. Not only is this repetitive, but it also renders the dialogue unrealistic and scuttles all of the tension. The characters live on the surface of themselves; any time they may have depth, they dredge it all up for us to see.*

So I wondered whether I could improve the novel in a quick and easy way. Could I, for instance, simply rearrange the chapters?

A friend of mine has told me that she never reads novels in the order they’re presented. She skips between chapters, backward and forward; she doesn’t even read a page in order, but jumps all over it. And this is of course a way of approaching novels: if we imagine a novel as a structure, rather than a flow, then you can see how visiting parts in a different order is still sensible so long as you can keep track of how those parts relate. I asked if she is more likely to read something in order if it’s not a linear narrative, and she said she was somewhat more likely to, because then she feels as though the order is more deliberate and less arbitrary.** But, of course, most novels aren’t entirely linear; even absolute genre-trash skips around in time a little bit. Mystery novels are most notable for narrative time-travel: they almost always refer back to the past, or to several hypothetical pasts, over and over again, to the point of obsession. And it’s not just mystery novels: flashbacks (technical term: analepsis) are common in all genres. And there are popular films and novels that play with this. Memento, which happens in reverse order, seems to me a deliberate play on the mystery novel’s obsession with the past. The page to which “analepsis” links mentions that in the Harry Potter novels, the Pensieve—a magical device for experiencing another person’s memory as though it were currently happening—is a way of making flashbacks an in-world event rather than just a narrative technique. Once Upon a Time divides each episode between the present and the past, where the present (almost) always proceeds in order from episode to episode while the past jumps all over the place. These stories maintain a linear chronology as a frame, but within that frame they still skip about, and so non-chronological narratives seem more common than you might at first think.

So, when trying to fix Arthas, the first thing I thought I could do was simply run the chapters backwards. Read the last chapter first, then the second last, and so on. The tension would come from the fact that you didn’t know how Arthas got to this point; you are thrown in the middle of history and are trying to uncover its origins. And, in fact, that’s the point of this novelization. For those of us who’ve played the games (or skimmed the wiki), we already know how it ends; we’re reading the book, presumably, to see how it begins. So why not make that part of its very form? For a few pages, this actually makes Arthas half-decent: the references to creatures and landmarks are off-hand enough that the fantasy world feels both mysterious and real because it isn’t over-described. And the opening image, with Arthas and his army climbing out of a subterranean world into the freezing Northrend wastes, is a fairly powerful cold open (pun mostly not intended).

Unfortunately, this doesn’t work after a few pages. As I said, Golden does not trust the reader, so all of the banter that happens during the climactic battle rehashes the conflicts that have already occurred. The last chapter contains a summary of the whole novel. So, if this were to work, you’d have to not only reverse the chapters but also cut large parts of the dialogue and exposition so that the past is only hinted at and not revealed outright. Even worse, though, the first few chapters aren’t very interesting, so the ending would be disappointing. There’s a certain poetic resonance to the first chapter: Arthas, as a child, watches as a foal is born, and then he encounters a friend who mourns the death of his father; this friend says, “I hate winter,” which is a somewhat heavy-handed reference to Arthas’s whole life but makes a good enough end for the book. There could be something bittersweet to it, if the third and second chapter set it up properly, but instead they limp a bit without the future to compel them. Nothing about those chapters ties the boy to either the hero he could have become or the villain he did become, and the narrative potential is squandered as a result.

So I worked away at a few other possible chapter arrangements, and the one I liked best switched between the first half and the second half of the novel, with the Culling of Stratholme (the event in which Arthas turns from hotheaded protagonist to aspiring villain)† as the point which joins the two half-narratives. However, the dialogue would still have to be fixed or removed, and the echoes that I mentioned before would be flattened: the set-up and the resolution would appear side-by-side, which means they wouldn’t stretch out across the novel any more. That would be a shame, because that echoing was one of Golden’s better choices. Nonetheless, it was an interesting experiment. I’ll include my suggested chapter order at the bottom of the post.

This exercise got me thinking: if a person were writing a novel from scratch, how might that person organize the chapters in a non-linear way? Part of the problem, as I see it, is that while some readers would be pretty excited about the idea, a number of other readers would be reluctant to read a book that’s “out of order.” So you could make a compromise: print the book so that all of the pages occur in one order, but at the bottom of each page there is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure-style direction. Instead of a choice between two branches of a narrative, however, the direction would simply read, If you want to read the book in the author’s recommended order, go to the next page. If you want to read the book in chronological order, go to page 48. Indeed, you could have multiple narrative orders: If you want to read the book in the editor’s recommended order, go to page 79. Whichever order the pages were in would be the easiest order, so you’d have to decide which experience you want to be easier to follow and which you want to require more work. In an electronic medium, you could use hyperlinks rather than instructions, or toggle between the two arrangements.

Of course, this would only work for a story that is told best out of order (as I think the Arthas story would be). Some stories might in fact be best told in chronological order. However, since that’s the conventional choice, it’s probably the case that many stories would be better told in another order than that one but haven’t been because no one thought of it. You would have to consider this on a novel-by-novel basis.


Proposed new order for Christie Golden’s Arthas: Rise of the Lich King:

Prologue, Chapter 24, Chapter 13, Chapter 23, Chapter 11, Chapter 22, Chapter 10, Chapter 21, Chapter 9, Interlude 2, Chapter 20, Chapter 8, Chapter 19, Chapter 7, Chapter 18, Chapter 6, Chapter 17, Chapter 5, Interlude 1, Chapter 16, Chapter 4, Chapter 15, Chapter 3, Chapter 14, Chapter 2, Chapter 12, Chapter 1, Epilogue


*In an article on American Sniper, Alyssa Rosenberg writes, “This is not dialogue. These are placeholder words that tell us what dialogue is supposed to convey.” Her assessment applies to weak dialogue in every novel, television show, and film.
**Arbitrary is not quite right, but the linearity of linear narratives is usually an unreflective decision on the author’s part. It’s a convention most people don’t question.
†Other people might point to the moment when Arthas takes the sword Frostmourne as his transition from hero to villain, but despite Blizzard’s best efforts, in neither the game nor the book is that scene as emotionally turbulent as the events at Stratholme; furthermore, at Stratholme he crosses a moral threshold which drives all of his friends away from him, sends him in Frostmourne’s direction, and probably makes the reader like him a lot less. How Arthas acts at Stratholme makes the tragedy seem inevitable, so it works better as the story’s turning point than the Frostmourne event does, even if the latter is the turning point in the games.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Must the Philosopher Walk Alone?

or, Families that Cite Together Stick Together

One of my favourite places to walk; copyright mine.

[EDIT: Just a few hours after posting this, I have realized one way in which I was unfair to Gros, because his discussion does reflect some of my own views on the world, and one very serious error that Gros committed and I forgot to bring up; I'll maybe need to write a second post, but until then read this thing I wrote for one of my tumbrls, which will suggest where I was unfair.]

I am trying to read Frédéric Gros’s A Philosophy of Walking. I found it in a Chapters, reading the blurb:
In A Philosophy of Walking, a bestseller in France, leading thinker Frédéric Gros charts the many different ways we get from A to B—the pilgrimage, the promenade, the protest march, the nature ramble—and reveals what they say about us. 
Gros draws attention to other thinkers who also saw walking as something central to their practice. On his travels he ponders Thoreau’s eager seclusion in Walden Woods; the reason Rimbaud walked in a fury, while Nerval rambled to cure his melancholy. He shows us how Rousseau walked in order to think, while Nietzsche wandered the mountainside to write. In contrast, Kant marched through his hometown every day, exactly at the same hour, to escape the compulsion of thought.

I had thought this would be a creative and intellectually rigourous account of the way these different philosophers thought about walking, and I looked forward to it. Instead, A Philosophy of Walking has turned out to be a litany of generalizations and unfounded claims in praise of walking.

I’m only about halfway through, but I think I’m starting to understand where Gros is going wrong. Consider this passage:
Many others have written their books solely from their reading of other books, so that many books exude the stuffy odour of libraries. By what does one judge a book? By its smell (and even more, as we shall see, by its cadence). Its smell: far too many books have the fusty odour of reading rooms or desks. Lightless rooms, poorly ventilated. The air circulates badly between the shelves and becomes saturated with the scent of mildew, the slow decomposition of paper, ink undergoing chemical change. […] Other books breathe a livelier air; the bracing air of outdoors, the wind of high mountains […]. These books breathe. They are not overloaded, saturated, with dead, vain erudition.
He is parroting Nietzsche here, but these ideas are not Nietzsche’s alone. In a later chapter, he describes the sorts of book which he likes, to which I’m sure he aspires:
Writing ought to be this: testimony to a wordless, living experience. Not the commentary on another book, not the exegesis of another text. The book as witness … but witness in the sense of the baton in a relay race.* Thus does the book, born out of experience, refer to that experience. Books are not to teach us how to live (that is the sad task of lesson-givers), but to make us want to live, to live differently: to find in ourselves the possibility of life, its principle.

A book that makes us want to live differently sounds great, but it is strange to think such a book could only come out of one’s own direct experience of life. I would argue that there’s something more troubling behind his dislike of scholarly books and argument; Gros also seems hostile to community. Let’s go back to the bit about books written in response to other books: “They are born of a compilation of the other books on the table. They are like fattened geese: crammed with citations, stuffed with references, weighed down with annotations. […] They verify, specify, rectify; a phrase becomes a paragraph, a whole chapter.” The jeremiad against verification, specification, and citation do not just discount careful thought, but also exhibit a skepticism toward conversation, toward engaging with other people’s thought. This appears in a directly stated preference for walking with no more than four people; “with no more than that, you can still walk without talking.” And this is the logic of those philosophers he esteems: Nietzsche, who sought solitude for the sake of his “freedom: no explanations to give, no compromises to stand in his way,” and who stands on the mountain, above the other people, from which vantage he can see through their vain moralities and conventional pieties; Rousseau, whose lonely walks through peaceful, domesticated woods taught him what both humans and nature are like; Thoreau, for whom authentic living is solitary and for whom society consists of three people.

And, indeed, there are glimpses of the book I wanted to read in this one; if Gros is right that Rousseau walked into the woods, away from all people, to learn what people are like, then that gives us some good insight into Rousseau’s failed project. The woods are not pre-civilized nature, and you can’t learn what humans in nature are like by visiting them. It becomes possible to see how Rousseau’s approach to the project went wrong from the start. But Gros is not interested in critiquing Rousseau; the books he critiques are always generalized, shown in the abstract. The ones he mentions directly, he always agrees with. And this is also strange, since Nietzsche, Rousseau, and Kant are hardly good playmates. Critique would likely seem too like the citations and specifications Gros despises, however.

All of this means that Gros gives the impression that he would be indifferent to this critique I am writing, not just because I am no one, just some blogger, but also because my critique is of the order of citation, of libraries, “overloaded with quotations, references, footnotes, explicatory prudence, indefinite refutations.” (The irony, of course, is that Gros’s refutations are the indefinite ones, since he will not quote those he disagrees with.) Perhaps he did not mean to, but Gros immunes himself from criticism at the same time that he cuts himself off from community.

I do like walking, though I do it less than I ought to; I understand Gros’s joy in leg muscles and trails and trees and rocks and scents carried on the fresh air. And I think while walking, to be sure; but, as everyone does—as Gros must do to—I carry conversations, culture, society with me when I walk, and when I get back it is to take part in the conversation again. Sometimes I find a walk necessary to free myself from the terms another person has set on the discussion, but that is in the service of coming back to the discussion. And, indeed, life experience can improve walking, can enrich the literary and philosophical traditions one has learned. But there is not the split that Gros suggests: without a personal engagement in the world, indeed citation and reference might be vain parroting, but that engagement need not be solitary, and without community you cannot open yourself to correction, to further learning, to others' experiences. And so I found A Philosophy of Walking a disappointment.

Again, I have not yet finished the book. If I find more worth discussing, I’ll come back.


*The footnote given reads thus: “The French word témoin, meaning witness, has the subsidiary meaning of baton passed between runners in a relay race [translator’s note].”

Saturday, 3 January 2015

On Mystics and Postmodernists

This post will barely rise above the autobiographical, but perhaps despite that it will be of some use to someone; I intend to discuss the way in which my (mostly former) interest in mysticism has been related to a sympathy for (but lack of identification with) postmodernism.

I remember, towards the end of high school, engaging with certain skeptics and atheists among my classmates. When I say, “engaging,” I should really say, “imagining engagements,” since I do not think I ever tried my arguments out against my classmates, prefering to debate my imagined versions of those classmates. One of my arguments I later learned was already famous as Pascal’s wager, which I have subsequently found less than compelling; another was that humans, being finite and imperfect, could not reason accurately about God, who was infinite and transcendent. As evangelism, this argument is a non-starter; as defensive apologetics, it suffices, but hardly. I admit I was naïve. For a pre-existing and self-critical faith, however, the idea that humans cannot accurately reason about God is almost certainly a necessary component, so while I’ve stopped using it (or imagining that I use it) to defend my faith against critics, I’ve found it a fairly good idea to hold on to.

A logical consequence of the idea of a God that is beyond human comprehension and also interacts with the world we experience is that the world we experience is, in at least some ways, beyond human comprehension. By the time I got to university I started engaging with people on these questions and, for the most part, I had trouble finding anyone who would give me good reason to believe that the world was perfectly comprehendible to humans; everyone wound up begging the question in one way or another (or so I thought). And so I was especially receptive to the idea of mysticism in a religious studies seminar I took in second year. You can read some of the fruits of that receptivity if you follow the “mysticism” tag in my labels.

I was frustrated by what seemed to me the deliberate opacity of some mystical writing (certain Tantric instructions come to mind), and I was frustrated, too, by what I felt was my own lack of mystical ability, but I appreciated the idea of ineffability. In particular, it worked well with the idea that logic could not wholly describe reality; logic, after all, is constrained by language and linguistic categories, and so it makes sense that if there is a God beyond reason, than this God would also be beyond language, too. Indeed, with or without a God beyond reason, it would make sense that humans could not reason perfectly about the universe because there are gaps in language which must also appear in logic (because, again, logic is constrained by language).

As I’ve already discussed, taking classes in the humanities, especially in English, is an exercise in learning postmodernism without quite knowing you’re learning postmodernism. And so, in tandem to learning about mysticism, I found myself attracted to ideas about linguistic bias, the ways in which human institutions are constructed, not inevitable, and human assumptions are often culturally-determined and not universal. Professors griped about the biology department’s evolutionary anthropologists trying to explain culture with reproduction, ignoring both the differences between cultures and the pre-existing explanations for them; I learned about feminism and learned to avoid gender essentialism; although I was not at that time receptive to existentialism, I recognized that writers like Neitzsche and like St. Teresa of Avila both launched similar rebellions against common sense and slavish reliance on rationalist logic. Even my philosophy classes, which were Anglo-American to a fault (with the exception of PHIL-101, thank goodness), prepared some of this ground with a discussion of multiculturalism in my ethics class (Kymlicka) and fictionalism and Quinean pragmatism in my philosophy of mathematics class.

When I finally started to learn about postmodernism formally, I began recognizing the differences between mysticism and postmodernism. I suppose what stuck out most to me was how conventional mystics sound. Huston Smith, for instance, has observed how mystics from all religions tend to sound alike; for Smith, this is evidence that they are all getting at the same thing, but I realized that to a postmodernist who bothered to look at this sort of thing (which isn’t common), it would be evidence that even the supposed experience of that which is beyond language has a set of conventions covering it. While the failure of language suggests for the mystic that something exists beyond language and logic, something which can be experienced but not truly understood (or true understanding cannot quite be remembered after the experience itself), the failure of language suggests for the more radical postmodernists that truth is impossible, since all experience derives from linguistic categories. The mystic tends to look to the self for truth, turning inward and imagining an individual relationship with God or Reality or what have you as essential for the best kind of knowledge; the postmodernist tends to be skeptical that there is such a thing as an inner self, and considers communities, social roles, and conventions as important to the pursuit of truth as acknowledging individual differences is. The mystic tends to worry about authenticity; the postmodernist cannot remember what they ever thought authenticity meant.

But beyond this mystics and postmodernists do seem to have a lot of in common. Both, as covered, are skeptical that either rationalist logic or common sense can approach true understanding of the universe we live in. Both have a certain attachment to inherited traditions (albeit a nostalgic or ironic one for the postmodernist), but both also tend to be willing to reject elements of those traditions without guilt, to resist institutional authorities in those traditions, and refashion that tradition to address new experiences and needs. (Even mystics that tend to be very scrupulous about checking in with their religious authorities, like St. Teresa of Avila, are often considered threats by the religious establishment because they claim to have religious knowledge that comes through other avenues than mere inheritance—at least until they are deceased.) Both put a very high priority on experience as a basis for knowledge, but both also acknowledge that that people must subsequently interpret that experience and the interpretation might be fraught. Both tend to see the self as more complicated and more relational than common sense has it (though they may differ when it comes to who that relationship is with). Both tend to conveniently overlook the ways in which they themselves have become conventional and locked in their own assumptions. And, of course, postmodernism owes a lot to Buddhist mysticism.

I generalize more than I like here. Of course there is more to both traditions—mysticism and postmodernism—than I suggest. I represent my experiences of them. And it is worth noting that I have become far more impatient with mystical claims than I used to be; I have a reputation among some as being highly, even excessively, logical. You can determine for yourself how deserved this is. Anyway, I thought it worth noting that the origins of my interest in mysticism is identical to the origins of my interest in postmodernism.
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